Why all this has happened is the topic for another column. The reality that even the strong among U.S. airlines are vulnerable to sudden spikes in fuel prices, let alone sudden abandonment of passengers, is essentially unquestioned.
Fleets of jetliners with price tags of between $40 million and $200 million each and costing literally millions per month even to lease cannot be left parked on the ramp for more than a few days before an airline financially melts down. After all, in the wake of 9/11, the losses among all U.S. airlines from spending several days on the ground and many weeks with partial loads of worried passengers amounted to enough money to worry Bill Gates (i.e., billions).
Even a government bailout program only plugged some of the holes in the financial hull of most carriers, and even with that help, the massive retardant effect of SARS the next year helped march the legacy carriers into bankruptcy court (and kept those already there in tenuous condition).
The impact of public abandonment of public transportation in the face of a spreading pandemic in our own back yard, however, would simply collapse the delicate financial structure of most carriers who depend on a river of cash coming in, as well as flowing out of, the door. Cut off the inflow and the rest of it dries up.
"So what?" the worst of the blind supporters of deregulation respond. If all the airlines collapse, others will rise in their place. In theory, of course. In fact, more than just passengers depend on the ability to get ourselves and our goods from Point A to Point B on demand. So does the economy. Again, the post-9/11 experience validates this.
The purpose of all this is not to frighten, but to raise a clarion call that among the other nightmarish elements we and our elected officials absolutely must carefully consider and plan for is the role of the airline industry as an indispensable part of American life (read: public utility), and we must prepare for what we'll do if the worst occurs.
The vermin who attacked us on 9/11 are betting we'll get it wrong.
John J. Nance, ABC News' aviation analyst, is a veteran 13,000-flight-hour airline captain, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves. He is also a New York Times best-selling author of 17 books, a licensed attorney, a professional speaker, and a founding board member of the National Patient Safety Foundation. A native Texan, he now lives in Tacoma, Wash.